Tuesday, December 14, 2010


While finding yourself beneath mistletoe in North America during the holiday season traditionally implies luck and increases your chances at stealing a smooch, the trees that the partially-parasitic Phoradendron flavescens are commonly found growing from are not so lucky.

Botanically speaking, the plant is a 'hemiparasite,' which means that it is capable of producing its own food by photosynthesis, but more often it sends out roots to penetrate the branches or trunk of a tree and steal nutrients. The seed is spread by bird droppings in the crown of trees and because mistletoe is an evergreen, like Christmas holly, it is most visible in the winter when the leaves of host trees have fallen. Perhaps most interestingly, the familiar Christmas decor is often "harvested" by shotgun. How romantic.

So how did a parasite become a symbol and tradition during holiday festivities? I don’t know for certain, but some say the answer lies in Norse Mythology. In ancient Scandinavia, if enemies met by chance beneath mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms and hold a truce until the next day. This custom went hand-in-hand with the Norse myth or Baldur, whose mother, Frigga, made every object, animal and plant promise not to harm her son except mistletoe, which she overlooked. After a mischievous Norse god killed Baldur with a spear fashioned from mistletoe and brought winter into the world, his mother declared the plant sacred. Baldur was eventually resurrected and Frigga ordered that any two people passing beneath it must celebrate Baldur’s life by kissing.

More recently, Washington Irving wrote about a now often-overlooked aspect of the mistletoe tradition in a footnote of “Christmas Eve”

“The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”

Those berries, by the way, are poisonous despite the fact that they have long been considered an aphrodisiac.

So if you find yourself beneath a parasitic plant this season, think of traditions of peace and the tree that is now free of a nutrient-thief. Or, if you need an exit strategy, distract the smoocher by spewing the fun facts you’ve just learned!

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